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Northland Nature: Geese, swans in open water

Migrant flocks of Canada geese and trumpeter swans rest in open water on an early spring day. Photo by Larry Weber

Like a couple of the previous months, March showed quite a difference between the first half and the second. While the average temperature in the beginning was mid-teens, that of the latter half was mid-30s. Subzero readings with snowfall happened at first, but neither prevailed.

The snowpack was quite impressive — up to 3 feet in some areas — and dropped to about a half-foot by the end. ("In like a lion, out like a lamb.")

All this weather change combined with longer amounts of sunlight, especially after the vernal equinox, and we saw many spring happenings. Some years, this new season will arrive without us hardly noticing, but not this year.

Though we do not have the floods that some parts of the country have, we do have plenty of melting and other changes now as we begin April.

Tree catkins with pollen are forming on alders, hazels, willows and aspens. Silver maples are opening their male and female flowers on the twigs of these large trees. Early crocuses and dandelions are opening in the sunlit sites. The local chipmunks are back in the yard during the day while raccoons and skunks come by for nocturnal visits.

And we see some migrants. While driving in the region recently, I noted a bald eagle overhead and a northern harrier flying above a field. Flocks of crows let us know of their presence as do some new ones at the bird feeders. Joining the wintering birds here are a couple of early spring migrants, purple finches (looking like red-headed sparrows) and gray juncos. But there is more.

A few flocks of robins have arrived, mixing with those that wintered here. During an early morning walk a few days ago, I heard and then saw a singing red-winged blackbird. Its "conk-a-lee" song is always a welcome sound at this time. And it told me that if this migrant of the wetlands has returned, so maybe another one is here, too.

Going out again at dusk near an alder-willow swamp, I listened and yes, I heard the "peent" call of the courting woodcock, another terrific sound of the new season.

Other sounds are easier to hear. Each day, I hear calls from Canada geese as they pass overhead looking for some open water. With lakes still holding an ice cover, they seek sites on rivers.

Stopping at the St. Louis River a week ago and looking out in the open water, I saw dozens of large geese, but they were not alone. Out here, too, were the even larger trumpeter swans.

Trumpeter swans may be the largest of the waterfowl that we're likely to see here. With a wingspan of 80 inches, they are considerably bigger than geese and their cousins, tundra swans.

They are also very loud, explaining the name of trumpeter. During the last 20 years, they have gone from an occasional sighting to a regular and even common spring visitor. Many pairs have been breeding in the region. Native to the Midwest and on up to Alaska, they were nearly wiped out a hundred years ago, but successful reintroductions and plenty of nesting sites have brought these large and loud white birds back.

Soon, they will be joined by flocks of their smaller cousins, tundra swans, as they head north.

But now in the expanding open waters of the river, it is great to see these swans along with geese, during the early spring breakup.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.